There is a memorable quote in the Woody Allen movie, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) which goes, "I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional, but you can't have everything."
I've always held that with men like Sir Percy Blakeney, Edward Rochester and Fitzwilliam Darcy, real men never stood a chance. Who needs the trouble of relationships with men who will eventually disappoint, when you can just flip to the chapter "Richmond" and live the moment when Blakeney kisses every spot that Marguerite's foot had touched?
And no character is more complex (and therefore attractive) than Edward Rochester. Playing this role was obviously some kind of rite of passage for brooding, talented actors: Orson Welles, Timothy Dalton, William Hurt, Colin Clive, George C. Scott, and most recently, Michael Fassbender (among many others) have all tried to unravel this tormented hurricane of a man.
It always worries me to see a classic book that I adore being adapted to screen. Despite there having been a few dozen adaptations of Jane Eyre, this is the first one I've watched. Sure, BBC got Pride and Prejudice right, but that book seems downright fluffy and romcom-y in comparison to Brontë's dark and meditative passages set in those haunting moors. But putting all trepidation aside, I watched all four episodes and I'm happy to report that BBC's talent for adaptations remains unblemished.
The most noticeable thing about the series is that they've drastically cut short Jane's sojourn in Lowood School and with St. John and his sisters. Instead, the series concentrates on her romance with Rochester, and is a commentary on the situation of classless, educated girls with no means. I was all set to burn BBC effigies when I heard about this, but on watching the series, I have no choice but to applaud their pragmatic decision, because when I now reread the book I find myself impatiently getting through the Lowood bits, and will Jane to hurry up and reach Thornfield Hall already! I can see why there was really no need to spend more time on Lowood. Like Jane says, she discovered herself and was "born" only after she came to Thornfield Hall. Yes, Jane is a lovely heroine, naive but levelheaded, but for me, it is Jane's conversations with Rochester that just light up the book.
However, I was not pleased with the portrayal of young Jane: she seemed a bit too sure of herself. Jane Eyre from the book was downright terrified of the Reeds and was a very unhappy child. Jane from the TV series on the other hand, was cocky, like she was just biding her time. I just could not feel her despair and hopelessness. Also, Brocklehurst was not horrid enough: I mean, the man in the book was an enormous prick, but I suppose the full character got axed in the drive to keep her childhood short. Fair enough.
But the childhood bit is merely the prologue-- the show really begins with Rochester's entry. He is described in the book as, "... a Vulcan— a real blacksmith, brown, broad-shouldered; and blind and lame, into the bargain.” Toby Stephens, starring as Rochester, channels that description into every scene. Oscillating moods, abrasiveness, impetuousness, sudden bursts of affection, familial hatred, sense of duty, --this Rochester, like Vulcan himself, is fiery and unfaltering, and does complete justice to Brontë's description and dialogue. There are moments when he spits out his lines with venom for life and people, like the real Rochester. There are moments when he is childlike in his impatience and stubbornness. There are moments when he is heartbreakingly gentle with little Jane. And these little moments stay with you long after the show is done.
The piece de resistance of the series is of course, Jane's romance with Rochester. I found the affair to be very believable, even though it's a rather unlikely tale about a rich landowner falling in love with a very plain governess. There was sufficient conversation and character growth, so their falling in love doesn't feel like it happened in 15 seconds. Also, they took great pains to portray the peculiar situation of governesses who are not rich enough to be Upstairs and too educated to be Downstairs. On the other hand, they didn't make her out to be a downtrodden Cinderella either. It felt very real and their romance seemed likely.
The portrayal of Mrs. Rochester as a beautiful, free-spirited woman is interesting and seems to have taken inspiration from Wide Sargasso Sea. They've given her a character, a lot more than Brontë ever did. It is hinted that Rochester's hate and fear of her may have stemmed from her independence, open sensuality and vague fears of her mother. Was her insanity actually genetic? Or did Rochester's fears for her sanity make her go mad?
For all its efforts to stay true to the book and depth of its characters, Jane Eyre doesn't quite have that timeless classic feel of Pride and Prejudice (possibly because Jane Eyre did not have Colin Firth in a wet shirt), but it is the perfect thing to watch when you have a hankering for a proper costume drama and a Gothic thriller-love story.